MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT answers questions after a mayoral candidate debate hosted by two WGN anchors on January 31, 2023 at Steinmetz High School.
After a tough freshman term in office, Lori Lightfoot had a lot to say and plenty of important points to make. She had a meeting with Chicago’s Black Press, and she came out swinging as she defended her record as the city’s first Black female mayor.
It is a tougher political climate today than when Lightfoot took office. Four of the nation’s biggest cities are headed by a Black mayor. Two are headed by Black women, with Karen Bass leading Los Angeles after her historic win for mayor last November in the General Election.
Lightfoot is up for re-election on February 28, but her chances of keeping her job remain in doubt. But she came to the interview still confident and determined to prove critics and opinion polls wrong. In a nearly two-hour meeting, Lightfoot asserted herself as the best Black candidate for the job, demanded an apology from radio host Maze Jackson and called reparations the Invest South/West project that she touts as her signature contribution to Blacks in Chicago.
Held at the Chicago News Weekly office in Avalon Park, the Black Press’ meeting with Lightfoot was at times tense, as she spoke to journalists and publishers from the Chicago Crusader, Chicago Defender, Chicago Citizen, N’DIGO and other publications in the Black community.
During the interview, Lightfoot said she needs a second term to finish what she started at City Hall. She referenced the date December 2, 1987, the day Eugene Sawyer was chosen to succeed Mayor Harold Washington, who died two weeks prior, as the new mayor to stand until the next election in 1989.
“That day as you know was a raucous day in the City Council,” Lightfoot said.
“At the end of it, Eugene Sawyer was picked. You had a lot of the Vrdolyak 29 who supported him over Tim Evans. But the people who supported him disappeared when the next election happened in 1989. And that’s when Black Chicago lost power for 30 years. I’m not going to say Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley didn’t do anything, but it makes a difference of who’s on the 5th floor at City Hall. It makes a difference who sees the entirety of the city. It makes a difference who understands the struggle of working poor, working class families.
“That’s what is at stake. So, I’m running again to finish the work that we, the collective we, have started. $2.2 billion into Black Chicago just through the Invest South/West alone. Another $340 million in our Chicago Recovery Plant on top of Invest South/West. Another $1 million into small businesses during the height of the pandemic to keep those businesses open. To keep their employees employed. To keep circulating wealth within Black and brown Chicago.
“And a huge chunk of that money came to the South Side and the West Side. So yeah, I want to finish the work that we started. I want to make sure that by the time my time is done, that we can never go back. No one would dare divest, starve our neighborhoods. It’s very important to me that we continue the work going forward.”
Lightfoot faces six Black candidates who may destroy her re-election hopes as they threaten to split the Black vote as Hispanic and white voters prepare to send Congressman Chuy Garcia and former Chicago Public Schools Chief Paul Vallas to a runoff in April. Among the Black candidates, Lightfoot’s biggest opponents are Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and businessman Willie Wilson.
“There’s no other Black candidate that has a shot of even getting to the runoff and never going to see inside of City Hall other than invited as a guest by Mayor Lightfoot,” she said.
“That’s the truth. You can look at the polls. You can slice the numbers 20 ways from Sunday, but fundamentally, any vote coming out of Black Chicago [that] is not for Lightfoot is giving it to Vallas and Chuy. That’s the God’s honest truth. And I’m happy to talk about any other candidates. And let me just say this about Vallas and Chuy. You ask yourselves for Chuy. This man has been elected for 40 plus years, and he loves to touch his hand and conjure up the memory of Harold Washington. He worked in city government for about nanoseconds, and then he left to go elsewhere.
“Let’s talk about Brandon Johnson. Brandon Johnson is to the left of. He’s out there on an island by himself. He supports the defunding of the police, still. He says it’s just not a slogan, it’s a movement. It’s something he fully embraces. In this time, when we have violence in way too many neighborhoods, this is a guy who literally wants to deconstruct the police department.
“Brandon Johnson has never been in the executive [office]. He doesn’t know how to run a business. He doesn’t know how to create revenue and jobs. But again, he talks a really good game. The important thing to know about Brandon is that he and Chuy are competing for the same voters.”
Contrary to what happened in 2021, Lightfoot said she supports an elected school board.
“I do not support the legislation that was passed. And I’m happy to spend another session going chapter and verse on that, not in the least of which is they don’t account for that symbiotic financial relationship between the city and Chicago Public Schools (CPS). No one’s going to continue to pay what is in excess of half a billion dollars every year to CPS if they don’t have any say in the governance of CPS.”
One crisis Lightfoot has weathered is the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, less than a year after she took office, the pandemic struck Chicago. Blacks disproportionally died from COVID-19, more than any other ethnic group. Without a script as a freshman mayor, Lightfoot steered the nation’s third biggest city through a difficult period that claimed thousands of lives, numerous businesses and jobs. Since then, Congressman Danny Davis has steered $29 million to Chicago to address health care disparities among Chicago’s minorities.
“One of the biggest challenges that we faced during the first two years of COVID was getting people educated about the disease,” Lightfoot said.
“We had to do a lot of myth busting. You may remember that a lot of Black folks said Black people can’t get COVID. The truth is the first person who died in our city was a middle-aged Black woman. We had to do a lot of work, but what we learned was we had to have troops on the ground who are trusted in the community to be able to get the message out, to be able to knock down people’s messy myths about the health care system and get them to be proactive about taking care of themselves. We couldn’t do that from the top down. We needed to do that at the block level.”
When asked her view on giving reparations to Chicago’s Black residents, Lightfoot responded, “Reparations is called Invest South/West. Reparations are called the procurement reforms that we’ve done to make sure that larger chunks of the city’s 3.5 billion dollars are going into Black and brown Chicago.
Lightfoot went on to say, “Reparations [are] called the $31 million that we put into mostly Black Chicago through our targeted financial assistance, meaning $500 a month for 5,000 families for a year and helping them overcome the financial challenges that they have to make sure that when that pilot program is over, they’re in a better position than where they were before.
“Everything that I am doing is focused on equity and inclusion. Some people want to call it reparations. That’s fine. I call it building Black wealth,” Lightfoot concluded.
Black leaders, educators and historians have long argued that reparations from local, state and federal government is a way of financially compensating descendants of Black slaves to correct social and economic scars they suffered as a result of decades of segregation, racism and discrimination. Lightfoot’s Invest/ South West initiative, they say, aims to revitalize Black neighborhoods through business developments, but it does not address the deep needs and scars of Blacks on an individual level in a way that reparations would.
During her interview with the Black Press, Lightfoot demanded an apology from radio host Maze Jackson, whom she accused of saying that “she was more lesbian than Black.”
Jackson replied, “We were adamant about supporting your candidacy. When we watched the tape, you said I am the first openly lesbian woman candidate, and you never mentioned your Blackness. And I think that’s where it came from.”
Lightfoot replied, “I don’t remember that, but I’m sure it was in response to a question about folks as my mother would say to me, ‘Look at me, sir. Look at me. What do I look like? What do I look like?’ Ok? Let’s be clear. What have I done every single day since I’ve been in office? [I] Poured more money in Black Chicago than any other mayor in the history of this city.”
Speaking directly to Jackson, Lightfoot remarked, “So, yeah, I’m offended sir, by your comments. And I wasn’t going to sit here and let you get away with it without me saying something. You are stoking division and saying stuff that’s not true, not helpful, but you be you, and I’m going to be me.”